Alternative feeds for beef cows
February 27, 2014
Under normal circumstances, we mostly expect that beef cows consume traditional forages, either by grazing pastures or being fed hay. When circumstances aren't normal, such as during drought, many producers use alternative feeds, such as crop residues or byproducts of various industries. This can range from wheat straw or corn stalks to distillers grains, as well as various combinations. However, once the abnormal circumstances pass, producers usually return to the use of traditional forages as the primary feedstuffs for beef cows.
Times are changing, though, and it may be time to consider a greater role for alternative feeds in beef cow diets. There are a number of circumstances that make me suggest this. First, consider this simple example: If a producer rents pasture at $50 per cow or pair for eight months and feeds one-half ton of $130 hay per month for 4 months, base feed costs would be $660 per cow per year. These prices are not uncommon this winter and I have heard of pasture rents in South Dakota for this coming summer considerably higher than $50. This doesn't include salt, minerals, or any other supplements that may be needed. Alternatives that still provide the nutrients that the cow needs but lower costs will provide the opportunity to improve profitability.
As suggested in this example, cost of traditional feeds is of concern, particularly the cost of pasture to graze. Anybody that has followed the pasture rental market knows this. This was understandable during the drought years, but drought has abated for most producers in the Tri-State Livestock News region. Cattle prices and cost of alternative feeds both play roles in the continued high prices. Higher cattle prices allow (and maybe lead to) higher input costs, so its not surprising that pasture rental rates have risen. The value of the land has also risen, so of course that drives up the return that landlords want. Despite higher cattle prices, input costs still need to be controlled.
Its natural to see cattle grazing either rangeland or tame pastures, so it fits the paradigm of everyone from a ranch to want to continue to graze cows. However, because cows have a huge rumen, they have the capacity to digest the fiber in a wide variety of roughage sources, which allows them to thrive on a lot of feedstuffs other than grazed pasture. If those alternative roughages can meet the cows' requirements at less cost than pasture, then they should be considered.
In the example above, I used $130 per ton for hay because that is about where beef cow quality hay seems to be priced this winter. This seems tolerable relative to the $260 or higher hay prices just a year ago during the drought. However, it wasn't long ago that the same hay was $80, so it's all relative. Again, if $130 or higher is the new normal, perhaps this quality of hay is better used for animals with higher nutrient requirements for growth and less rumen fermentation capacity, such as backgrounded calves. Again, taking advantage of the cow's capacity to extract nutrients from highly fibrous, low-quality roughages may be the cost effective alternative.
It may be that the producers that are paying the highest pasture rental rates can afford to do so because they cheapened up winter diets for their cows by grazing on corn stalks. There are a lot of farm acres dedicated to corn in this region that are not currently being grazed or harvested after corn harvest, so opportunity exists to follow this example.
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Cattle producers are being rewarded with record calf prices, and livestock marketing folks suggest that this should continue for several years. The opportunity to capitalize on that and see record profits will depend on controlling costs. Because feed costs are always the largest part of overall annual cow costs, finding lower cost feed alternatives is a natural place to look for cost control.
What are you going to do for summer pasture this year? If you don't have all the leases that you need lined up, it may be time to think outside the box in terms of how to carry your cows through the "grazing season."
Kenneth C. Olson is the Extension Beef Specialist with the SDSU West River Ag Center.